The Transfiguration: “Revealing the Defeat of Death” (Guest Post By Fr. Kenneth Tanner)

This piece originally was broadcast as a sermon by Fr. Kenneth Tanner at the virtual Open Table Conference (III) that took place February 26-28, 2021. It has been formatted for written form and appears here with the author’s permission.

Scripture Readings: Mark 8:31-37, 9:1-10

“The transfiguration is a revelation of the defeat of death.”

On the mountain Moses and Elijah, dead to history, are very much alive and once again embodied. They are speaking with Jesus. This is not telepathy. Human speech requires tongues and tongues require bodies. The disciples are witnessing not cleverly devised mythology (2 Peter 1:16)—bits and pieces of the Israel story artfully arranged to reinforce pious sentiment—but a palpable, reach-out-and-touch-it experience of the resurrection, of something still more real than our death-drunk reality.

Resurrection is just outside our ken, just beyond our ability to perceive it, and yet we see here on the mountain that it is nevertheless everywhere, and near us, and greater than death. Transfiguration shows us that resurrection is the end of all things, not death.

On the holy mountain the law and the prophets are in a conversation with their embodied human perfection, Jesus Christ, and their talk is about sacrificial love, about the “Passover” this One, the human God, would “accomplish” at Jerusalem. As they talk, perhaps Moses understands now that the blood on the doorposts of Israel—the dark red stains that ward off the angel of death—is the blood of this human with whom he and Elijah are speaking. What else could it be? It is not the blood of sheep and goats that defeats death.

In the inflections of Jesus Elijah recognizes the Lord who passes by, who was not in the great and strong wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but in the still small voice.

In Moses we remember that the law tastes good like honey; that if humanity could be converted by it—and it cannot— the earth would be a paradise free of murder, envy, lies, and disrespect.

In Elijah we recall that if Israel (or we) had listened to the prophets, the refugee would be welcome, the poor not neglected, the oppressed set free from their slavery, all debts cancelled but, alas, we are deaf.

The transfiguration is not the end of the law and the prophets but is the radiant inscripturated flesh of Jesus their telos, their perfection. Also, here on the holy mountain, for a fleeting moment of “eternal now” the disciples witness the glory of what Eastern Christians call the “uncreated light” that is waiting to be unveiled everywhere and in every ordinary thing in creation, the light of resurrection.

This uncreated light reveals not the colour, shape, size, and texture of a thing or a person as natural light does. This is not the direct or reflected light that causes photosynthesis in plants or moon shadow on a Michigan winter night that reveals the limbs of trees painted ink black across a white field of snow. No, this uncreated light discloses the goodness, beauty, and verity instilled in the tree or the tiger or the orchid or the human by God.

“This unique illumination, unavailable apart from self-sacrificial love, not revealed apart from the cross, is made possible by the profound humility of our incarnate God. The suffering of God in the human flesh of Jesus is what fills the universe with a divine light that’s more radiant than all stars: the light of the resurrection.”

The universe is called out of nothing and sustained in movement and life by the triune God who gives all of himself for this cosmos they as One make, and this selflessness is what in the end illuminates everything that exists with supernatural radiance…from the inside out. Remember that the light disclosed in the transfiguration comes from within Jesus and radiates out into the world around him. And because all things are made and sustained by him, Jesus Christ is their hidden light. It will be magnificent when we can see this uncreated light shine forth in everything.

Oliver Sacks in his book “Hallucinations” recalls experimenting with combinations of drugs while a medical student in New York. While tripping he once asked to see the colour indigo and a blob of indigo appeared for a moment on a wall and then disappeared. The colour stole his heart. Sacks recalls a lifelong search— leafing through the pages of art books, overturning stones—yearning to see that colour again. Sacks muses that perhaps it’s a colour once present in creation but now no longer visible. He felt the colour was still there but just beyond his unaided faculties to see it. Imagine all of the original colour we’re not seeing and all the colour yet to be revealed.

When by grace we participate in the triune selflessness by the Spirit, we inherit the permanence that God is by nature; we become one with the Father who by the Son said “Let light shine out of the darkness.” This is the light that shines from the face of Moses; that envelopes the chariots of fire that carry Elijah beyond the sight of Elisha; that radiates in the cloud that now descends on Tabor. Our Father has “made this light shine in our hearts so that we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ, his Son” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

And from this human and divine face, shining like the sun in full strength, everything in creation will in the end be transfigured by light, a consuming fire which reveals the true essence of all things, and redeems further still, beyond all original goodness, heals from every participation in evil, and elevates to participation in the divine nature. The salvation that occurs by the death of Jesus, that transfigures everything, and makes resurrection the end of all things, is not just about getting us back to Eden. This is about the whole creation becoming heaven, about heaven descending to earth, about the difference between heaven and earth coming to an end.

“The Transfiguration shows us that love is a conversation, a conversation that brings Elijah down from heaven and raises up Moses from the ground, a conversation that brings heaven and earth together in the resurrection.”

This conversation invites us (like Peter, with all our misunderstandings, sins, and frailties) into the eternal discussion that is the divine life shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit.”

What is the conversation that Love speaks? What are Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus?

Love talks always and everywhere about the cross, about the suffering of God in the flesh of Jesus that makes us heirs with the One who has the words of life, words about “a sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (John 6:68; Hebrews 12:24). Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are talking about the cross because “where there are no graves there are no resurrections” (Nietzsche).

Graveyards and tombstones are all that we now know but here is a sacred conversation that tells us that death dies; that death is trampled down by death. “To preach the word of the cross seems like sheer nonsense to those who are on their way to destruction, but to us who are on our way to salvation, it is the mighty power of God released within us” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

This word of the cross is a far superior, more life-granting conversation than the one that takes place on social media, on broadcast news programs, and on talk radio—a far more fruitful conversation than our present one, driven by political partisans, corporate commissars, and conspiracy daydreamers.

The glory on this mountain is in speaking well of the cross, telling of a suffering pain that heals and does not destroy God or humanity, because Love is stronger than death.

Once again, in case we cannot yet hear the song of creation: the Transfiguration reveals a divine conversation, the conversation about self-sacrificial love that the triune God forever is. A light-radiant cloud descends on Tabor, the same cloud that descends on Sinai when God signs his law on stone tablets, the pillar of cloud that follows and defends the children of Israel in the wilderness. The self-same cloud that fills the temple when the musicians play and sing praise to the God who is good, whose mercy endures forever and ever.

When later Isaiah envisions the Lord ascended on a throne (and this God’s only throne is a cross), as the six-winged seraph fill the air with their thrice-sung “holies,” like the train of his billowing robe, the interior of the temple is filled with this cloud. This cloud is the Spirit. And here on Tabor, from deep in the light-radiant cloud, comes the voice of the Father, “This is my Son, marked by my love; listen to him.” Moses and Elijah fade from view, and heeding the Father’s voice, we now only read their Scriptures in light of this human who is God, we only see Jesus on the pages of Scripture. The Scriptures are veiled for those who don’t begin their experience and witness of God with Mary’s son, who was born of and from her amniotic fluid, with the one who the people of God rejected for a criminal, the one who dines with sinners, who touches the unclean, the one who never kills or destroys, this transfigured one who instead raises the dead and rebuilds the world.

“Jesus is the human God from the beginning and therefore he is the truest self of every human, not our ancestor Adam. Pride is not your truest self, humility is what you were made to embody; hate is not the essence of your person, love is what you forever are. You were made to incarnate the divine disposition that Jesus reveals, one of service to every creature in this grand and beautiful cosmos he loves more than his own life.”

This moment on the mountain reveals the truth about every person and that truth is that the sacred life of Jesus is now the measure and the meaning of human nature.

Transfiguration folds time, brings disparate events together, for this is not just a real moment between Moses, Elijah and Jesus, and between the disciples and the triune Love; it’s not just this actual historic moment on Tabor where a resurrected humanity communes with the divine life. This moment also reveals the encounter with Moses and the triune Love on Sinai, and later on Sinai, Elijah’s encounter with the one God, who is not present in the earthquake or the fire or the mighty wind but in a still small voice.

This moment on Tabor participates also in the moment where John of Patmos encounters this still small voice as the figure walking amid the seven-branched Menorah in the opening of the Apocalypse. Here at the outset of Revelation the description of Jesus is nothing but a composite of all the descriptions of the Transfiguration in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

This One, transfigured by the uncreated light of heaven, this revelation in human flesh of the conversation that the triune God is, lays his right hand on John—and in Matthew’s account on Peter, James, and John—and on everyone in this room, and on every human who has ever lived or ever will live, and this is what Jesus Christ says: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).

Just before we get to Tabor, Peter is perplexed. This is not supposed to end with Jesus dead. Maybe it was his affection for Jesus, maybe it was sheer passion for his friend that made him shout that this could never happen, that Jesus could not allow himself to be killed. I imagine none would want to be parted from the human God after walking with this Tree of Life. Who would want to be parted from Jesus?

We would want him to keep overturning tables and healing the sick and freeing prisoners and raising the dead until the whole world was well, everything pieced back together. Still Jesus decides he has to make it clear that any suggestion that he had not come precisely to lay down his life as God and as man for the life of the world was so out of touch with his mission as to be demonic. Jesus gathers everyone together and describes how the world works, describes the way the life that is God works, and it opposes all fallen human intuition. In order to be alive forever, you must lay down the life you possess. In order for the world to live, God must die. Jesus tells us that unless we yield to his way of self-sacrifice, we’ll be embarrassed when the human God returns from death with all the holy angels.

Some think Jesus will return as a better Napoleon than Napoleon; as an alien force that wields destructive capacity beyond human imagination; that we will fall to our knees because his presence will so terrify us with paralytic fear as to wish we were dead. God does not change. The same Jesus who washes feet, and dines with sinners, and welcomes children, and dies with criminals is the same Jesus who comes at the end of the world with all the holy angels in all the glory and majesty of his unmatched humility.

The unchanging humility of Jesus holds all stars and planets in their courses, is an everlasting disposition of divine charity toward creation that holds all things in life and breath, is the glue that holds all things together. It is this vision of divine humility (not worldly notions of overwhelming strength) that will embarrass us with its riches if instead of choosing the way of self-sacrifice, we chose the way of hubris, the way of personal empire; if we choose our own way. If we have grabbed at every morsel of our paltry life and hoarded it with a death-like grip; if when he returns we are self-absorbed, we will want to hide from the gaze of self-sacrificial, blood-stained love. And he tells us these things as a warning because he loves us and wants us to enter life now. So, Jesus, help us. We surrender to what God has done in the humanity we share with you. We want to die with you and live.

“If you find yourself in hell, a victim of natural disaster, drowned by your own ruined heart and participation in evil, do not be afraid or lose hope; a preacher is going to come, and the preacher is the crucified and risen creator, who is patient and who loves the world.”

This preacher who on Holy Saturday descends into all of our hells, remembers his covenant with every living thing on earth; he remembers mercy, not our sins. Unlike the ancient gods, whose malevolence or indifference must be appeased for favours, this preacher enters our world of tsunamis and wars and plagues as one of us to endure the waves and the violence and the pestilence with us, to suffer hunger and thirst and trials.

This preacher drowns with the disobedient outside the ark, with the chariot armies of the Egyptians, with the lost tribes of Israel, and with us. He does not want to be the only righteous human while the rest of us, his unrighteous brothers and sisters, go under. His baptism into death is our baptism. Our common ancestors failed to keep a fast but this preacher keeps his. Our ancestors grasped for equality with God but this preacher embraces human limitations. While we resist limitations, God embraces them. And because he does these human things as God, the one human nature we all share is granted his permanence by grace.

Athanasius says that God sees us falling into the grave and beyond the grave towards the non-existence from which we came because we have walked away from the eternal conversation about love. This is not what God wants. God wants to whole creation to participate once again in the conversation about the cross and so God becomes human to draw us back into the conversation. Jesus’s record of resistance to evil is now the story of our life as a gift. His victory in wilderness temptation is our victory. There is only one human response to the initiative of God to save the world and that is the human response of Jesus, which response he makes on behalf of every human.

What happened in the human Jesus happened to all humans and is the only conversion, the only sanctification, of humanity. As Barth understood, the finished work of Jesus Christ is the only true change that has or ever will occur in any human or in humanity as a species and his is the change in humanity that makes the difference for us all. The one human nature we all share has been justified and sanctified in this human who is God and who lives forever. All the change that ever happens in any other person by grace is the change that happens in the humanity of Jesus.

As Cherith Nordling comments, “There is nothing that God is doing in Jesus Christ that does not belong to everyone. But there’s also nothing that God is doing in Jesus Christ that anyone can do apart from him or for him or along with him, we just get to follow him and be with him and receive the overflow.”

And what does this preacher who is in hell with us—the hell of this existence bound by death, the hell we have ourselves made of the world, of any hells that are, and if anyone remains in hell we know this preacher is with them—what does this human who is God preach?

This what he preaches: The time is here. The kingdom has arrived. Repent. Believe this gospel (even if it all seems too damn good to be true) because it is trustworthy. We can venture everything on Jesus Christ, our human brother, with us in all of our prisons and hells. With his nail-scarred hands on all of our shoulders he makes us a promise: “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive—forever and ever—and I hold the keys of death and Hades!”

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. You can find more of his writing at Medium, Sojourners, and The Mockingbird.

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